‘We will seek justice’: Testimony begins in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre trial
10/27 TrialThe prosecution personalized each of the victims

‘We will seek justice’: Testimony begins in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre trial

The government played a 911 call from Bernice Simon, pleading for help

A memorial outside the Tree of Life building after the Oct. 27, 2018, attack (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
A memorial outside the Tree of Life building after the Oct. 27, 2018, attack (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

The sound of booming gunshots and screams echoed through a federal courtroom on Tuesday as the government played a 911 call from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre on Oct. 27, 2018.

Bernice Simon had called on her cell phone to report a shooter loose in the Tree of Life synagogue building.

“We’re at Tree of Life, we’re being attacked,” she said to the dispatcher.

Her husband, Sylvan, had been hit as the couple sat in the chapel. They had been married in the synagogue some 60 years earlier.

“He’s shot in the back,” she said in an out-of-breath voice.

The dispatcher told her to stay down and put her shawl on Sylvan’s wound to stop the bleeding.

On a second call, loud shots can be heard in the background as the shooter continued his rampage through the building.

“I’m scared to death,” Bernice said.

Her husband wasn’t breathing, she said. She said he might be dead. Moments later, the jury heard her own screams amid deafening gunshots, followed by her dying breaths.

She was 84. Her husband was 86.

That call marked the first day of testimony in the federal death penalty trial of Robert Bowers.

He is accused of gunning down 11 worshippers because of a hatred of Jews. It’s the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history.

In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song recounted the systematic slaughter that morning and then made a simple declaration.

“We will seek justice,” she told the jury, “in the names of the deceased victims.”

She named each: the Simons; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; David Rosenthal, 54, and his brother, Cecil, 59; Dan Stein, 71; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Irving Younger, 69; Melvin Wax, 87; Richard Gottfried, 65; and Rose Mallinger, 97.

The accused killer, a truck driver from Baldwin, is charged with gunning them down while they gathered for Shabbat services. He is also accused of wounding other congregants and several Pittsburgh police officers in two gunfights.

There is no doubt as to his guilt.

The real question is whether he should die for his crimes in the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Song described how the congregants had gathered that morning to pray. She personalized each of them.

Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, both intellectually challenged and known as “the boys,” were “trusting and pure” and took up posts in the lobby to welcome other worshippers. Bernice and Sylvan Simon, a couple devoted to each other for 60 years, sat side-by-side in a pew. Rose Mallinger, a “devoted, vibrant member” approaching 100, entered with her daughter and would lead the prayer for peace.

The congregants settled in for a morning of prayer.

A half hour away, Song said, Bowers was also making plans — to destroy and kill.

“He hated Jews,” she said. “He called them the children of Satan.”

Online, he had praised the Holocaust and had some 300 followers who agreed with him. He especially reviled Jews, Song said, because he believed that they were responsible for an invasion of refugees coming to America to replace white people.

He left his home armed with an AR-15, three handguns and a shotgun, drove to the synagogue and parked in a handicapped spot.

Using his cell phone, he posted his contention that a Jewish refugee group, HIAS, was bringing in “invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

He then blasted out a window with the rifle and methodically roamed the building, killing everyone he saw. Song recounted him shooting helpless victims as he came across them in the sprawling building and described the horrendous wounds he inflicted. He shot six in the head at close range, others in the chest. Some congregants hid or ran while others stayed with victims to try to help them.

Song said 22 people were in the synagogue that morning. The defendant killed half of them.

“He left a trail of death and destruction,” she said.

The motive was clear: Hate.

After the Pittsburgh SWAT team wounded him, an officer asked him why had gone on the rampage.

“All Jews need to die,” he said. “I just want to kill Jews.”

In afternoon testimony, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers took the stand. He initially thought someone had knocked over a coat rack that morning but soon realized he was hearing gunfire. A congregant, Stephen Weiss, came running down the aisle. Realizing most of the congregants in the chapel were old and could not run, Myers told everyone to drop to the floor or lie flat on the pews and stay quiet.

He said he heard gunfire growing louder and helped three people escape the chapel. As he too fled, he called 911 while he climbed a staircase to a third-floor choir room and hid in a bathroom. He told the dispatcher he heard 20 to 30 shots and a woman screaming. He later realized the woman was Bernice Simon.

As he hid in the bathroom, he gripped the doorknob with one hand while he held his phone in the other. He said he was preparing to fight for his life if he felt that doorknob turning.

Prosecutors played the 911 call, and shots and screams can be heard in the background. At one point Myers said he had to stop talking because he thought he heard the shooter coming up the stairs to get him. He then started whispering on the call.

Eric Olshan, one of the prosecutors, asked why he had been whispering.

“I was praying,” he told the jury. “I expected to die.”

He said he thought of all the Jews hunted and slaughtered over the centuries and what they had endured, and he recited the final confession prayer. He also asked for forgiveness for not being able to save the others.

Soon four SWAT team members surrounded him, protecting him with their bodies, and led him away.

“Rabbi,” one of them told him, “run your ass off.”

The defense had no questions for Myers or for the other government witnesses and stayed silent.

In her opening statement, one of the defendant’s lawyers, anti-death penalty specialist Judy Clarke, said that the defense will not defend what Bowers did.

“It’s indefensible, it’s inexcusable,” she said. “You will see it, you will feel it and you will agonize with each witness” as the trial proceeds for the next two months.

“The loss that occurred was immeasurable,” she said, and her client caused it.

Her focus is on intent. The Bowers prosecution is not a straightforward murder case, she said. The federal charges are specific offenses, including hate crimes, requiring the government to prove each element. Among the charges, for example, is obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill.

Clarke asked the jury to analyze each count carefully because the government has to prove that the defendant acted with that specific intent.

“There is no making sense of this senseless act,” she said. But what the jury can do, she said, is “uphold the rule of law.”

Bowers is only the fourth defendant in the history of the Western District of Pennsylvania to face the federal death penalty. None of the others was executed. PJC

Related story: Resources are available to ease trauma during synagogue shooting trial.

Torsten Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress, where this first appeared. He can be reached at jtorsteno@gmail.com. This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

read more: